More theory, please

Theories and frameworks for listening abound—how to define it, what the process is, and how to understand it. At our recent CLE on listening skills, my co-presenter Jennie Grau displayed and briefly discussed three theoretical listening frameworks for understanding and defining listening. Those three frameworks are elaborated further in the postscript to this post. The TL; DR is that theoretical models of listening have moved from a simple and linear to complex and multi-faceted, becoming ever more unwieldy. (Cf. evolution of some legal rules such as a sixteen-factor test for whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor).

The CLE was offered to lawyers in the Omaha area, sponsored by the Nebraska Bar and International Listening Association in conjunction with the ILA’s annual convention. In written feedback after the CLE, one of the attorneys commented that they would have liked even “more theory.”

This was an intriguing comment. Why did this person want more theory?

I believe a subset of practicing professionals in any field are drawn to the theory of that field. They want to feel like they deeply understand the tools they use: those tools’ possibilities, limitations, histories, and alternatives. They don’t just want to be skillful at what they do, but to understand why they are skillful. They may pursue theory in order to improve their skills, or simply because, for them, adding a layer of theory helps them enjoy using their skills. An affinity for theory certainly does not extend to all professionals, and that’s fine.

But for readers who fit the bill and for the individual who wrote “more theory,” this post is for you. If you don’t want more theory, please stop reading here!

Precisely because a workable definition has to be reasonably concise, the International Listening Association adopted a streamlined definition of listening:

The process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages

What is the actual point of all these definitions and frameworks? If you Google “better listening,” you will get results such as “10 Steps to Effective Listening” and “5 Steps to Listen Better.” These may generate clicks, but it’s not clear they are grounded in research or meaningful analysis.

This type of “quick fix” for listening is extremely common, Professor Andrew Wolvin notes in the introduction to Listening and Communication in the 21st Century. And t,his is where theory can help, he says. A strong theoretical basis for listening can help answer whether a purported “quick fix” actually works and, perhaps, why. Wolvin lists several benefits of theory, quoting Steven Littlejohn in Theories of Human Communication. The list below builds upon that list and explores some connections between general listening theory and legal communication specifically.

1. Organize and summarize knowledge

Communication scholars—several of whom I met at the ILA conference—are constantly monitoring the contours of the field. Just as one example, later this year professors Graham Bodie and Debra Worthington will publish The Sourcebook on Listening Research, reviewing (among other things) “a variety of theoretical models for assessing the cognitive, affective, and behavioral facets of listening…alongside 65 measurement profiles.”

Within the legal academy, we also have some incisive, practical scholarship on teaching listening, including a wealth of clinical scholarship. Broader connections can be found in the scholarship on professional identity and cultural competence. As in the general non-legal field, there is more emphasis on speaking and writing. For example, a 2016 paper in the Legal Writing Journal used an anthropological approach to investigate what lawyers do in their daily lives. The method focused on reading and writing but did not include an investigation of listening. This is an understandable scope limitation, partly because of the following observation:

Even in the smallest workplace, email exceeded face-to-face communication and phone calls as the means of communication, which meant that these attorneys were writing constantly.

So theory helps to reveal where the knowledge is, and where the gaps or opportunities are as well.

2. Focus on variables and relationships

As shown in the anthropological study of lawyers above: when we added email as a constant communication channel, what did that new variable do to existing modes of communication? How did it enhance and detract from relationships? According to Sherry Turkle, even the presence of a smartphone—and even when it’s unused and face down on the table—reduces empathy in a conversation.

Within the legal field, there are ongoing discussions of these new variables: for example, how texting and digital communications generally intersect with lawyers’ ethical duties. See, for example, the Nebraska lawyer whose Facebook messages responding to a client’s inquiry via Facebook did not satisfy his duty to communicate.

3. Clarify what we observe (and give tools for observation)

Observing listening is extremely difficult because some of the process is hidden from view. Listening theory can help. For example at the International Listening Association’s Conference, I attended Professor Sherry Wien’s talk where she had painstakingly analyzed and coded every moment of every interaction between Joan and Peggy on all seasons of Mad Men. Using these tools, she produced observations about these characters that could ring very true in many legal workplaces. As I listened to Professor Wien’s talk, I wished that other lawyers had been there to laugh and learn from her approach.

On the more directly practical side at the ILA conference, a management communication firm shared their efforts to develop and scientifically validate a training survey on listening styles. Dana Dupuis of Brio Enterprises presented on the evolution of her consulting firm’s proprietary Hear? Hear! Listening Assessment. The problem with any type of listening survey, as Dupuis stated, is that people’s responses about their own listening aren’t always reliable. And there’s a very specific reason for this, she said:

 Listening in particular is prone to social desirability bias.

That means people think that being a good listener is socially desirable. And their drive to do things that are socially desirable means—intentionally or not—they will give survey answers showing that they satisfy that ideal. Thus, if you survey people on their listening habits, you are likely to come up with a population of amazing, empathetic, skillful listeners. Dupuis has modified the Hear? Hear! Assessment to minimize this social desirability bias through the question design, with contributions from Professor Graham Bodie of Louisiana State.

4. Enable predicting outcomes

Students of innovation in the legal industry may take note here. There are many ways to listen, from individual one-on-one focus to organizational listening through feedback, surveys, and in-person visits. Does a certain level of organizational listening affect client retention? On the individual level, how does the proportion of time spent listening versus talking affect how a typical client perceives their lawyer?

5. Provide a forum for communicating research and ideas

The field of legal communication often seems to parallel the general field of communication, with lots of emphasis on speaking and writing, some on reading, and the least of all on listening. But law reviews and academic conferences do provide a forum for listening-related research within the larger conversation about legal communication. For example the Legal Communication & Rhetoric journal I’m so fond of has featured Professor Barbara Gotthelf’s article, The Lawyer’s Guide to UmWhat’s the function of “um” in speech, and how do listeners react? The possible answers—which she grounds in both communication research and practical experience—are not as obvious as you might think.

6. Help establish norms of performance

What is bad listening, and what is good listening? What are the norms expected in human communication, and how do they overlap or differ in personal and professional life? Theory about listening helps to ask and answer these questions. For example, research shared at the ILA conference suggested that 38 percent of survey respondents could not go more than 10 minutes without checking digital media. The new norms of communication performance are in flux.

7. Generate change

This may be the most controversial. I’m not actually sure a strong listening theory can help generate change, at least not directly. But after attending the ILA meeting and reading some of the articles and books grounded in scholarship rather than platitudes and talking with listening scholars such as Debra Worthington and Andrew Wolvin and Laura Janusik and others, I’ve come to the conclusion that listening theory does absolutely enrich the big conversation about what communication is, and what it could and should be.

Selected Listening Frameworks  

(There are many, many more, such as the well-known HURIER model in Judi Brownell’s listening text. The frameworks here are just one small slice of listening theory.)

The SIER Listening Process

This model is an example of a very basic model of the listening process, formulated by Lyman Stiel in the 1980s:





The SIER model reflects a linear process of listening.  Subsequent models added much more context.

Andrew Wolvin Model

Professor Andrew Wolvin’s model is an example of a more contextual model, and it’s not linear. Rather, it’s a series of overlapping circles, with the top circle containing key “Influencers”:






Behind that circle are five contextual factors, all potentially influencing one another:






Alan Ehrlich’s Model of Speech Understandability

Trying to name every potential influence on the listening process is not possible, but Alan Ehrlich has made a serious effort. His visual model of speech understandability branches out to factors such as speaking style, accent, dialect, language choices, formality, non-verbals, vocal delivery, gender and sexual orientation, and interpersonal issues such as power and attitude. And those factors then branch out to perhaps a hundred more sub-factors:

Speech Understandability Index v1.92.png


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